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N. Korea Says Yes, For Now, To A Freeze

The deal apparently calls for a halt to plutonium production in return for energy aid.

A One-page Agreement

February 13, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Weary negotiators from six nations reached a tentative agreement early this morning on the first steps toward dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The pending deal, coming after marathon talks and years of frustration, is believed to call for North Korea to freeze plutonium production at its main nuclear center at Yongbyon and allow international atomic energy inspectors back into the country. In return, the impoverished nation would be given energy assistance and related aid.

A second, more protracted phase would address thorny disarmament issues.

The tentative deal is based on a one-page document circulated late last week by China calling for a several-stage agreement under which both sides would take measured steps forward to ensure compliance and build trust.

Details on the apparent breakthrough were not immediately available, pending approval by the governments involved. Talks reconvened today at the Diaoyutai Guest House in west Beijing. The six-nation talks involve the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia.

"We think this is an excellent draft," said an obviously tired Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, at the end of 16 hours of talks. "I don't think we are the problem, or would be the problem."

Any announced agreement with the government in Pyongyang should be treated with caution, given its history of faltering compliance and broken deals. That said, some analysts expressed cautious optimism that this could be a long-awaited turning point in negotiations with North Korea's autocratic leadership, which raised concern and ire across much of the world when it announced the testing of a nuclear device on Oct. 9.

The six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program began in 2003.

"There was an agreement on the key differences of North Korea's actions for denuclearization, their scope and how far they'll go," South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo told reporters. "North Korea basically agreed to all the measures in the draft."

All six nations must still sign off on the deal reached by their negotiating teams. Questions remained over how the deal would be funded.

Assuming the accord is confirmed, attention in coming weeks will shift to working groups aimed at addressing a variety of technical issues involving denuclearization, energy requirements, diplomatic recognition, timing and financial sanctions, among others.

"This is only one phase of denuclearization," Hill said. "We're not done."

North Korea is estimated to have enough plutonium for as many as 13 nuclear weapons. According to an estimate by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, Pyongyang could have the capability to develop as many as 17 nuclear weapons by 2008.

Still unclear was whether North Korea would be required to give up any existing nuclear stockpiles under the agreement.

The talks hit a wall in recent days when the North demanded huge amounts of energy aid, reportedly more than 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil annually, before it would agree to begin dismantling its program. The amount compares with 500,000 tons settled upon in the failed 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea negotiated by the Clinton administration.

That deal fell apart in late 2002 when the U.S. produced evidence it said showed North Korea was engaging in a secret uranium enrichment program, in violation of the pact. U.S. officials say North Korea admitted during talks at the time that it had such a program, but Pyongyang has since denied making such an admission.

During negotiations of the last few years, North Korea has frequently staked out bargaining positions widely seen as unrealistic in a bid to test the bottom line of those sitting across the table. The United States, Japan and South Korea responded by urging North Korea to reduce its demands, a move that apparently worked.

Japan, which has other issues of contention with North Korea related to the abduction of several dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s, welcomed the apparent progress.

"We are closely watching the development to make sure North Korea makes the right decision toward nuclear abandonment," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliamentary committee session this morning.

Experts said the key to any meaningful deal moving forward would be obvious, tangible progress within a matter of weeks under a structure that afforded North Korea no wiggle room to back out of its commitments.

"We must be vigilant and keep North Korea's feet to the fire throughout the implementation phase," said Don Gross, a former State Department official who is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council in Washington. "It is critical to U.S. security to keep this all under tight control."

Also key will be ensuring that any agreement has the support of hard-liners in both Washington and Pyongyang, who in the past have resisted accommodation.

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